Visitors to New Jersey chain restaurants may soon have more information when deciding whether to add fries and a shake to their order. A bill in the Legislature would require chains to post calorie counts for all items on menus inside the restaurant and at drive-up windows.
Aimed at curbing obesity by helping eaters make the healthiest choices, the bill would affect any chain that has 20 or more locations nationwide. The Senate is scheduled to vote on it today.
Consumers aren't very good at guessing the calories of a cheeseburger or a bowl of fettuccini Alfredo, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health and cited by authors of the bill. That's especially true for items that are highest in fat.
"We're not trying to suggest that restaurants and fast-food establishments should change their menu or discontinue offering that food, but consumers have a right to know the calories," said State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex), a primary sponsor and the chairman of the Senate health committee. "If they want to make different choices, they can."
A menu-labeling ordinance in Philadelphia, which also requires listing saturated and trans fats, sodium, and carbohydrates, will take effect Jan. 1.
New York City last year became the first major jurisdiction to pass such a law. California followed in July, and was later joined by Maine, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Similar measures are being considered in 20 states and localities, including Pennsylvania, where a bill is before the House Commerce Committee.
New Jersey's proposal, which could take effect as soon as the end of next year, has received a mixed reaction from restaurant owners.
Phil Butler, vice president of food and beverage for CB Holdings, which owns Charlie Brown's Steakhouse, Bugaboo Creek Steak House, and the Office Beer Bar & Grill, said he didn't anticipate a shift in business. Customers are set in their ways, he said.
"Their favorite dish is their favorite dish," he said. "It's kind of hard to change that."
The company has hired a nutritionist to assess its menus. It posts calories at a restaurant on Staten Island and is preparing menus in Philadelphia. Its 32 New Jersey locations will be ready to comply if the law is passed, Butler said.
George Ebinger, who owns three Ocean County IHOP franchises, sees it differently. He said he was sure he would lose business.
Franchise rules dictate that his menus can't exceed six pages, which means he would have to eliminate items to make space for the new figures. Ebinger worries that regular customers who saw their favorite items disappear would find somewhere else to eat.
Customers interviewed yesterday were also mixed about the proposal.
Jim Taylor, 40, of Berlin, who lunched on Charlie Brown's crab burger at the Maple Shade location, said he would welcome the change.
"We deserve to know what we put in our bodies," he said. "I used to cook for a living, and I have trouble estimating" calories.
Down the road at a McDonald's, Frank Tagliaferro, 39, of Marlton, waited in line at the drive-through - something he said he did just a couple times each year. He said he knew what he was getting when he ate fast food.
"It's like the warning on the side of a cigarette pack," he said. "If you don't know it's bad for you, read a paper."
Some chains, including McDonald's, already post nutritional information on their Web sites. The bill would require the calories in each item to be printed on standard menus, menu boards, and at drive-throughs. It would not apply to salad bars or buffets.
Penalties would range from $50 to $100 for the first offense and from $250 to $500 for subsequent offenses.
Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, said evaluating the calories in each menu item could be costly for local franchise owners and would not guarantee a benefit for customers. She pointed out that nutritional labels in the grocery store hadn't eased obesity rates.
"We don't believe that menus should be used for public-service announcements," she said. "They are marketing tools and should be maintained as such."
To avoid a patchwork of different laws, Dowdell said, she would prefer that regulation of menus be left to Congress. Menu labeling is part of health-care legislation that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.
Vitale said the federal regulations could take two or three more years to implement if they passed. He wanted to get something in place sooner. He said he had considered other states laws in crafting the bill to make it easier for chains to comply.